AVERY MOD­ERN FAIRY­TALE

She’s one of Oprah’s favourite ac­tresses, has the Streep seal of ap­proval and is star­ring along­side Emma Wat­son and Ewan McGre­gor in Beauty and the Beast. Celia Walden meets Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an Ox­ford girl done very, very good

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - GUGU - pho­tog­ra­phy: art streiber

You don’t for­get your first phone call from Oprah. At least Gugu Mbatha-Raw won’t. The woman she now calls her ‘fairy god­mother’ – but had never met at the time – left her a voice­mail four years ago, when Gugu was in a New York cab on her way to JFK. ‘ When I lis­tened to the mes­sage, it was the weird­est thing,’ she says, suc­cumb­ing to a fit of gig­gles. ‘Be­cause at that time I was do­ing Oprah’s med­i­ta­tion ex­pe­ri­ence with Deepak Cho­pra, where they email you a short med­i­ta­tion each day. Then sud­denly I get this lovely rich voice say­ing, “Hello, this is Oprah” – and it sounded just like the open­ing of the med­i­ta­tion app. I thought I’d pressed the wrong but­ton by mis­take.’

This was no mis­take. This was the Queen of Me­dia di­rect-di­alling the ac­tress to tell her how im­pressed she had been by her per­for­mance as Dido Eliz­a­beth Belle, a mixed-race 18th-cen­tury aris­to­crat in Amma Asante’s 2013 film of the true story, Belle.

Hug­ging her knees to her chest on a sofa in LA’s Chateau Mar­mont ho­tel, the 33-year-old re­lives the mo­ment. ‘Oprah had loved the film,’ she ex­plains. ‘And she had also seen me in­ter­viewed by her friend Gayle King – she had liked my an­swer when I’d been asked, “Would you like to be the next…?”’

Her an­swer be­ing? ‘ Well that, ac­tu­ally, I’d rather be the first me.’

Four years on, Gugu has man­aged to make that sassy sound­bite a re­al­ity. Af­ter Belle – her break­through role, for which she won a Bri­tish In­de­pen­dent Film Award – the Rada-trained ac­tress went on to prove her cre­den­tials op­po­site Min­nie Driver in Beyond the Lights, a Body­guard- es­que ro­mance ex­pos­ing the sin­is­ter un­der­belly of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. Parts in the sci-fi thriller Jupiter As­cend­ing with Ed­die Redmayne, and Con­cus­sion op­po­site Will Smith fol­lowed, and most re­cently, in the dystopian drama Black Mir­ror for Net­flix.

Last year’s Free State of Jones – in which Gugu plays a run­away slave dur­ing the Amer­i­can Civil War who falls in love with Matthew McConaughey’s Con­fed­er­ate army de­serter – prompted Time mag­a­zine to high­light her ‘un­canny knack for mak­ing cen­turies-old his­tory feel jar­ringly prox­i­mate’. The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, mean­while, praised her ‘un­com­mon ver­sa­til­ity’ – some­thing she’ll be putting to the test in her big­gest project to date, Dis­ney’s live-ac­tion Beauty and the Beast, in which Gugu plays… a feather duster.

Any­one who re­mem­bers Dis­ney’s gor­geous 1991 an­i­ma­tion will know that Plumette is no or­di­nary feather duster. Once the Beast’s maid, she is a vic­tim of the same curse that has turned an ar­ro­gant Prince (played by Down­ton’s Dan Stevens) into a mon­ster, his two but­lers into Lumière the can­dle­stick (Ewan McGre­gor) and Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and his cook into Mrs Potts the teapot (Emma Thomp­son). Only when their master’s love for the book­ish Belle (played by Emma Wat­son) is re­cip­ro­cated do all th­ese house­hold ob­jects be­come hu­man again.

‘Ac­tu­ally, the first thing we filmed was the huge, sump­tu­ous ballroom scene at the end,’ Gugu ex­plains when I ask whether she and her love in­ter­est Lumière ever man­aged to leave the voice-over stu­dio. ‘I was hideously jet-lagged and it was my first in­tro­duc­tion to Ewan, so we were both try­ing to learn this dance and trip­ping over each other – that was a nice ice-breaker.’

It was Gugu’s ‘eight-year-old self ’ that leapt at the chance to be in­volved in the film – a pro­duc­tion so ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated that the trailer alone broke records with 127.6 mil­lion views on­line in its first 24 hours. ‘It has gen­uinely been my favourite Dis­ney film of all time. I re­mem­ber hav­ing the tape in the

car and know­ing all the words – so there was a lot of nostalgia in­volved for me. And this one is ev­ery bit as sump­tu­ous and mag­i­cal as the orig­i­nal, only with a bit more hu­mour go­ing on. Gas­ton [Luke Evans] and Le Fou [Josh Gad] are a re­ally fun dou­ble act, for ex­am­ple, and so are Plumette and Lumière.’ We have a slap­stick back and forth about the flirty, French-ac­cented Plumette (‘ What’s it like dat­ing a can­de­labra?’ ‘Do I ever get singed, you mean?’).

Gugu grows se­ri­ous again once we move on to the dif­fi­cul­ties of up­dat­ing fairy­tales, which are so often fraught with po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect mes­sages. ‘But I think that’s the cool thing about Belle,’ she says. ‘She’s book­ish, she keeps her­self to her­self and she’s not wait­ing for Prince Charm­ing to sweep her off her feet and take her away, so there’s not much of that dam­sel-in­dis­tress thing. Also, the whole moral of the story is that beauty comes from within – and that alone is a very pos­i­tive mes­sage.’

The daugh­ter of a South African doc­tor fa­ther and English nurse mother, Gugu’s par­ents sep­a­rated when she was a baby and she was brought up by her mother in Wit­ney, Ox­ford­shire. She spent much of her child­hood tak­ing the bus into Lon­don to see West End pro­duc­tions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, feel­ing, as she puts it, ‘a mil­lion miles from Hol­ly­wood’. Be­ing an only child, her mother thought it im­por­tant for her to be so­cial, ‘so I was al­ways that ex­tracur­ric­u­lar kid with this whole af­ter-school life: bal­let one night, tap the next, choir, steel band – you name it, I did it.’ As an eight-yearold she re­mem­bers beg­ging her mother to en­rol her at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in Lon­don, ‘to which she said, “ab­so­lutely not – you fin­ish your school­ing first and then if you still want to do it, you can.” And ob­vi­ously it all turned out fine.’ ‘Fine’ is char­ac­ter­is­tic un­der­state­ment. Af­ter the sump­tu­ous Beauty and the Beast, we’ll next see Gugu play­ing a gun-con­trol lob­by­ist op­po­site Jes­sica Chas­tain in John Mad­den’s po­lit­i­cal thriller, Miss Sloane. The role, she says, made her more aware of vi­o­lence in films: ‘ Well, it’s free ad­ver­tis­ing for the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion isn’t it? I’ve never liked vi­o­lent movies but I do feel that mind­less, car­toon­ish vi­o­lence is worse, be­cause you’re in that video-game mind­set and gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple are grow­ing up numb to that ex­treme vi­o­lence.’ She pauses. ‘So I’m more drawn to hope­ful, inspiring sto­ries.’ As with the film she is about to start shoot­ing – an adap­ta­tion of Madeleine L’En­gle’s up­lift­ing youn­gadult science-fan­tasy novel, A Wrin­kle in

Time. Di­rected by Ava DuVer­nay, it also stars Reese Wither­spoon – as well as Gugu’s fairy god­mother, Oprah Win­frey. ‘I don’t have any scenes with her, sadly,’ says Gugu, ‘ but it’s still go­ing to be great do­ing this to­gether.’

Part of a gen­er­a­tion of Bri­tish ac­tors who honed their tal­ent at Rada (where her con­tem­po­raries in­cluded Ben Whishaw, Tom Hid­dle­ston and An­drea Rise­bor­ough) and on stage, Gugu was first no­ticed play­ing Juliet to An­drew Garfield’s Romeo, aged 22, at the Manch­ester Royal Ex­change. In 2009 she played Ophe­lia op­po­site Jude Law in a Don­mar Ware­house pro­duc­tion of Ham­let that trans­ferred to Broad­way – although far too lit­tle of the show’s suc­cess rubbed off on her, she tells me. ‘Ac­tu­ally, I got very frus­trated be­cause all the boys in

‘Ewan and I were try­ing to learn this dance and trip­ping over each other – it was an ice-breaker’

the pro­duc­tion were sign­ing with man­agers and no­body was call­ing me at all.’

It’s this forthright­ness that makes Gugu stand out from the pack. I learn, for ex­am­ple, that she has risked an­tag­o­nis­ing the stu­dios when there’s a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple at stake – in this case, air­brush­ing. ‘ The whole [is­sue] has be­come much more talked about now,’ she tells me. ‘ Which is great. But it wasn’t al­ways that way and back when Belle was about to be re­leased, I was sent an at­tach­ment of the first US poster and some­one had de­cided to in­flate my boobs and make my eyes green. Green! I wish I could dig out the email chain that I sent to all my agents. I was so fu­ri­ous. Belle was not a car­toon or a comic book and I was re­ally of­fended that they had light­ened my eyes, be­cause any­one who has seen the film will know that it’s about her iden­tity as a bira­cial woman.’ They hadn’t light­ened her skin, I hope? ‘No – but it’s all con­nected. And need­less to say, it got sorted quickly. But it made me vig­i­lant.’

It’s cu­ri­ous – and heart­en­ing – that Gugu has reached such star sta­tus with­out re­ally play­ing the game. She’s been happy to talk gen­der and race in the past, but has al­ways de­flected in­ter­view­ers press­ing her too hard on ei­ther, pre­sum­ably pre­fer­ring to be known for her per­for­mances rather than the hot-but­ton is­sues du jour. Her pri­vate life has al­ways re­mained just that (the only re­la­tion­ship we’ve known about so far is one with Game of Thrones ac­tor Harry Lloyd, which ended in 2012) and when I ask what the dat­ing scene is like in LA, she says firmly, ‘Ac­tu­ally, I never talk about that side of things in in­ter­views.’ She’s not on any kind of so­cial me­dia: ‘Maybe it’s old­fash­ioned, but I feel like I put enough of my­self out there with my face on the screen and the pub­lic­ity I do for those projects – and I also feel like I’m on the edge of a gen­er­a­tion who can just take it or leave it.’

I won­der whether it’s be­cause suc­cess didn’t come overnight for Gugu that she’s re­mained bliss­fully un­spoiled. She seems as­ton­ished that Hol­ly­wood peers have no­ticed her work, re­count­ing the day she first met Meryl Streep at a Bafta tea party, ‘And she told me she’d loved Beyond the

Lights, which I found amaz­ing.’ And yet she ex­udes a sense of be­long­ing here at the Chateau Mar­mont, and in LA, which has for four years now been ‘home’.

‘I do love it,’ she ad­mits, ‘ be­cause that whole La La Land “an­other day of sun” thing does give you a spring in your step – and also be­cause I was al­ways into that healthy liv­ing, yoga-and-green-juice thing back home – even though there it makes you feel like a bit of a freak.’ She misses Britain. ‘It’s the sense of hu­mour I miss most – that dry pes­simism. I some­times think there is an eye-roll that’s lack­ing out here. That irony, you know? And walk­ing in the English coun­try­side, and the sea­sons… I mean look,’ she says, pulling a scarf out of her bat­tered Coach leop­ard-print bag as we head out into the blis­ter­ing mid­day sun, ‘I still wear this out of habit.’ As I drive off past the 20-foot Beauty and

the Beast bill­board above Sun­set Boule­vard, it oc­curs to me that that’s the one habit Gugu might have to lose. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is out on 17 March

‘Some­one had de­cided to in­flate my boobs and make my eyes green. Green! I was so fu­ri­ous’

Clock­wise from above in Free State of Jones, with Matthew McConaughey; as Belle; in Beauty and the Beast; with He­len Mir­ren in Wash­ing­ton last year

Gugu’s best looks: (l-r) in Burberry, Prada, Ro­darte, San­dro, Nar­ciso Ro­driquez and Lela Rose. Be­low With her ‘fairy god­mother’, Oprah

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